Swabbing Our Way to A Solution for Antibiotic Resistance


For the most challenging of microbial threats, one microbiologist is trying an old tactic in a new era.

Antibiotic resistance is a looming threat that pulls at our very capacity to problem solve, especially under pressure. The rise of the resistant bug was predicted by the father of antibiotics, Sir Alexander Fleming, MB, BS, and yet, we are still struggling to not only prevent the resistant germs from spreading, but also to develop new medical countermeasures. From financial incentives to spark research and development in the pharmaceutical industry, to focus on the microbiome, we are desperately hoping one tactic will finally take.

One scientist, microbiologist Adam Roberts, PhD, is trying to revitalize an old approach for the new problem. The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine-based researcher utilizes nature and the environment as potential sources for a new antibiotic that might help us against resistance bacteria. After his daughter fought off a nasty infection with a resistant bug, he began his quest to use the environment around us to help find a solution. The environment is a rich source for microorganisms, some of which produce compounds that can be utilized as antibiotics. Although most individuals would scour the earth to find obscure microorganisms, Dr. Roberts is looking to the battle-ground around us—the real world where people and bacteria are in close quarters.

In 2015, he started ‘Swab and Send,’ a “a citizen science and crowdfunding initiative aimed at spreading the word of how important it is to find new antibiotics,” according to the initiative’s Facebook page. The initiative also helps create a microbial database. For £30, Dr. Roberts’ team will send anyone a handful of sample tubes, a mailing envelope, and directions for what to swab (for example: a nutritious area bacteria would likely grow, likely something unsanitary). After you send back your swabs, you can check out Swab and Send’s Facebook page and see what microbes grew from the samples.

Not surprisingly, the project has caught on and Swab and Send has already received hundreds of swabs. I recently reached out to Dr. Roberts on behalf of Contagion® to learn more, and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions regarding his work and what he’s come across in his time swabbing unlikely places.

Popescu: Were you surprised by the number of swabs that were sent in?

Roberts: “Yes I was. The interest in the project has been phenomenal. The public really does have a thirst for knowledge and a general predisposition to help in solving problems. This is why this project works so well.” Although he was not particularly shocked by the organisms they found, Dr. Roberts was surprised to see such a wide variety and beautiful array.

P: Are there any particular trends you are seeing?

R: “I am quite surprised just how easy it is to find microbes capable of producing an antibiotic which affects our weedy Micrococcus luteus strain. [In addition,] it is rare that we find nothing inhibitory in a plate of isolates when we assay them. This lends itself well to the project as participants can see from the Facebook page that there is a good possibility of finding a hit. The real challenge is finding one that can knock out our multidrug-resistant Escherichia coli or our Candida albicans. We have only found around 20 of these in the thousands that we have screened and this is exactly what we are trying to find.”

Dr. Roberts is hoping that between this project and his daily collections, researchers will be able to find a new antibiotic within the natural environment.

After chatting with Dr. Roberts, I put in my own request for some swabs. (What kind of infection preventionist would I be if I didn’t support such an awesome, socially-engaging project?) Once I learn the results of my swab samples, I’ll report back on Contagion® what grew on my swabs, where they were from, and additional thoughts Dr. Roberts has resistance, worrying trends, and the role of the public. After all, we are all in the battle against the resistant bug together, right?

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